1989 was a bleak year for Stilton. The illustrious English blue-veined cheese was accused as the culprit of a food poisoning scare that sickened several people whose Christmas tables it had graced. Fears that pathogens lurking in the raw-milk cheese were to blame triggered a knee-jerk decision that from then on, all Stilton would be made with pasteurized milk. The creamy blue was never proven to be cause of the outbreak, but it was too late. Production guidelines were rewritten, new equipment bought and methods changed. The centuries-old cheese as it has always been made ceased to exist.
Christmas, 15 years later: Talented cheesemaker Joe Schneider and affineur and British cheese advocate Randolph Hodgson meet for a pint at London’s Borough Market one chilly evening. Hodgson propositions Schneider with an audacious plan: to bring back raw-milk Stilton from the grave.
This may sound a little dramatic for a cheese, but in essence the story of Stilton and its reincarnation, Stichelton, one of the latest products to be included on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, is one of rules, rebellion and revolution. “Nobody had tasted raw-milk Stilton since 1989,” said Schneider, who showcased Stichelton this autumn at Cheese, Slow Food’s biennial event dedicated to artisanal cheese and dairy. “When Randolph came to me with this proposal, it was like the holy grail of cheesemaking, to be able to bring it back.”
The pair approached one of Hodgson’s colleagues at his London cheese retail company, Neal’s Yard Dairy, who had kept a vial of the original Stilton starter culture like a living time capsule. Five months later, after a long process of trial and error judged against the two-decade-old taste memories of Randolph and other cheese experts, the first round was released. With high quality raw milk, the historical recipe and original starter culture at their disposal, the expert cheesemakers were on their way to making a fine cheese, and arguably the closest living example to the age-old Stilton. Just one issue remained: because of the new production rules, it couldn’t be called so. Instead they christened it Stichelton, the earliest-recorded name of the village of Stilton.
What’s in a Name?
In 1996, Stilton received Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, a European law that governs the use of certain products names, which set in stone the ban on raw milk Stilton. The PDO law aims to protect regional foods, their authenticity and traditional techniques, and producers must adhere strict protocols in order to use the protected name. “In this case the PDO is excluding quality,” says Schneider. “According to the PDO rules I could make a Stilton with cranberries and banana and call it Stilton.” But not one with the original recipe and made with raw milk.
“Pasteurization has nothing to do with the PDO. It should be debated somewhere else…I am disappointed for the British that this cheese can’t be called Stilton,” says Schneider, who is an American. “Stilton doesn’t belong to cheesemakers or the factories; it belongs to the British people. It is their heritage and tradition; they should be able to eat it in its traditional version if they want. The name Stilton is instantly recognizable. And does a good job of evoking place – you say Stilton and you know what you’re talking about. We want our cheese to be part of that.” The pair are going through the legal steps to have the PDO amended, though that could take years. “While we wait, we want to win hearts and minds first,” Schneider says.
Although Schneider and Hodgson are not calling their cheese Stilton, a growing number of their supporters are. Slow Food UK being one, who has called the product “raw-milk ‘stilton’” on its Ark of Taste, a catalogue of high quality at-risk products.
In Defense of Raw
In many countries, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, pasteurizing milk in cheesemaking has become standard. When milk undergoes pasteurization, while any potentially harmful pathogens are killed, so are the naturally present microorganisms that contribute to the flavor, complexity and character of the cheeses made from it. To trigger the cheesemaking process and achieve any flavor in the final product, certain bacteria must be added back in pre-selected strains, often industrially produced and bought in packets from a lab, creating identical flavors in the resulting cheeses.
“When you pasteurize milk, it becomes muted,” Schneider says. “My job as a cheesemaker is to express the qualities and characteristics of that milk. If you pasteurize it, you wipe out most of those characteristics and have to add them back in a limited way. Raw milk will always deliver more flavor, complexity and finish. Instead of a two- or three-piece band, it’s a symphony.”
Whether they knew it or not at the time, when Schneider and Hodgson took up this initiative, they took up a battle that goes beyond flavor and food safety, but one for the right of consumers to choose what they eat, cheesemakers to decide what they produce, and the preservation of gastronomic heritage and tradition. What is perhaps most inspiring about Schneider and Hodgson’s story of making the cheese that, in Hodgson’s words, “nobody wanted us to make,” is that it brings to mind countless other stories of courageous people in the Slow Food network fighting against unjustified rules and regulations that threaten traditions and their ways of life, taking personal risks and speaking out: From Slow Food Ireland’s petition against the proposed ban on the sale of raw milk, to the North American cheesemakers who risk jail by continuing to make cheese against their countries’ over-zealous hygiene regulations, to the customers that walk into their local cheesemongers and ask for the ‘raw-milk stilton.’ They are all small ripples that can cause a great wave.
Stichelton has a long way to go, Schneider says. The recipe needs to be tweaked to reach the Stilton that exists only in memories, and more time and understanding is needed to master the rollercoaster that raw milk inevitably presents. No doubt it will be a grand cheese. But it’s the movement it stands for that’s the evolution to keep an eye on.
Simone Gie [email protected]
Photo: Kunal Chandra
For more information on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, visit: www.slowfoodfoundation.org